May 13, 2016

Identity and Purpose

I've been struggling with depression these past couple months. Yesterday was a particularly dark day for me. I felt awful from the time I woke up until the time I finally went to bed (around 10:30 p.m.). I woke up today, still feeling that sense of deep and utter sadness, as if someone I deeply love has died. I cannot really explain it, other than to say that I have been plagued by deep sadness since mid-February when I passed my qualification exams for my PhD.

I spent most of yesterday feeling so down that I barely got any work completed at all. I did make some heavy edits to my paper, and I removed about 4 pages that were not fitting into the overall scope of the study. Today, I need to complete my literature review, so I can work on my chapter 3, methods section this weekend. The work I am doing is not difficult, per se. It is time consuming, and a challenge to sort and edit. But generally, it is no more difficult than writing any other major paper for my doctoral classes. It just "seems" to be more difficult because of the length of the paper itself (somewhere around 200 pages total). I have confidence that I can do it, I just feel so unwell right now, that focusing on it, has been next to impossible.

Late last night, I collapsed into bed thinking that I was done in, completely unable to do what has been asked of me. I know this is not the truth, yet my body, my mind, and my spirit, all felt that it was indeed the truth. I really felt as if I was lost, clueless, and unable to function. I prayed over it for a long while, and then spent a little time on the Internet reading some articles on depression. As I was praying, however, I said to the Lord, "Lord, I feel like I have lost my sense of purpose. I feel like I am floating without any direction right now." It was interesting because as I googled on "loss of purpose," I found that this problem is the number one issue wrapped up in most cases of depression. Yes, a loss of purpose, a loss of identity, can lead to deep and profound depression. The good news is that a loss of purpose is one of the more minor forms of depression, in that it can be reversed by taking action to redefine purpose and to reorient the individual toward purposed work. I started to think about this idea, how losing one's sense of purpose can lead to feelings of worthlessness, to overwhelming dread in life, in general. It is a slippery slope that often leads individuals to self-medicate in order to get through the dreary days and hopeless feelings they suffer with day in and day out.

I prayed about this problem last night, right before I went to bed, and I realized that I have lost my purpose as well. I have lost my focus, and my ability to see myself in the same way I did several months or years ago. How could this be? How did this happen? How did I go from being so convinced of my purpose to feeling as if I now have no right concept of my identity?

The answer, I think, stems from a change in my life. I know it may seem weird, but I cannot really explain how difficult it has been to transition from doctoral student to PhD candidate. These past three years have been fundamentally life changing for me. You would think I would be excited about graduating, but I am not. You would think I would be overjoyed with the fact that I passed my exams, but I am not. You would think I would be excited to be working on my dissertation, but I am not. In fact, you would think I would be so happy to no longer be in class, to have to take classes, etc., but I am not. In fact, I feel this deep sense of loss. A loss of purpose. A loss of identity. Yes, I have experienced the crash and burn of a person who as transitioned from one way of life to another. I guess you could liken it to a person who has been in the military for a number of years and then suddenly finds themselves -- out -- out on their own. They were part of a select group, the IN-group, and now they are on the outside looking in. They have lost their selected status, and as such, they are cut adrift. Their identity which was partially formed through their social group membership has now been changed. They must find a new group to belong to or they will feel isolated and alone. If left on their own for a long period of time, they will come to feel less value, worth and esteem -- even if they feel personally -- that they are still a valuable and contributing member of society. Our self-esteem is tied emotionally to the groups we belong to, so much so, that when we suffer some sort of life change that shifts us from a particular group, we lose a sense of belonging, and sense of feeling well.

This can happen through many other life-changes (loss of job, for example). Changing status from student to graduate shouldn't really cause such crisis, yet for me, it has. I don't mean to downplay the significance or increase it in any way, but the truth is that I really have struggled with this sense that I am no longer a doctoral student and now must graduate. I guess the reason why I feel so strongly about my status change is that I have wanted to achieve this goal for so long -- for nearly 26 years. Now that I am at this point, I need to re-evaluate my purpose in light of my achievement. I need to reorient myself toward a new identity and new purpose. I need to re-establish my connection to who I am and why I exist so that I can move forward, and I can achieve all that God has in mind for my life.

Identity Formation

Identity can be defined as "The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group. The distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity" ("Identity," 2016). Moreover, a person's identity is the "mental representation of who he or she is" ("Identity Formation," 2016). Individual identity helps us accept and understand our uniqueness and our differences from others. Social identity helps us feel apart of a larger group. Both aspects of identity formation are critical to our sense of well-being, and to our ability to socialize and interact with others.

Erikson (1950) developed his theory of identity based on stages of development that he classified as occurring from birth to adulthood. These stages are necessary for the individual to pass through in order to achieve what he termed an "integrated adult identity." In his work, Erikson coined the phrase "identity crisis" which he stated occurred during adolescence when young people are most confronted with multiple choices that can lead to instability and confusion. Young adults who successfully master their identity, will go on to form a stable adult identity. However, Erikson noted that only half of all adolescents actually do survive identity crises due to struggles overcoming the crisis or the fact that they may not have suffered a crisis at all (a side point - helicopter parenting, a 21st century phenomena has the potential to create perpetual adolescents because it removes all situations where the identity must be challenged as it progresses from adolescent to adult formation). Interestingly, Erikson first noted identity crisis while studying WWII veterans, but today, it is well considered that individuals can suffer an identity crisis as a result of any number of personal and emotionally challenging life situations.

Any type of crisis can cause an individual to lose their sense of well-being, wholeness, and happiness. Death of a spouse, loss of a job, empty nest syndrome, for example, are all experiences where an individual's identity is challenged due to extreme change. The key to successfully navigating through adult identity crisis is to understand the nature of identity formation and then to carefully analyze the factors that are contributing to the loss of identity. In this way, the individual can understand how to evaluate and adapt to the changing environment, and with time, successfully survive the crisis, and in the end, form a stronger and more resilient identity.

Social Identity Theory

It is funny in a way, really, to think that my dissertation is on organizational identity in the American Megachurch. Yes, I am studying America's largest megachurches to see how they communicate organizationally in ways to support the formation of social identity. I am using Tajfel's (1979) Social Identity Theory as my framework. Tajfel defines social identity as "a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s)" (as cited in McLeod, 2008, para. 1). Social identity theory suggests that our group membership is a source of pride and self-esteem, and that through our social activity we find a sense of belonging to the world (para. 2). Moreover, SIT asserts that in order to feel a sense of belonging or purpose, we must be classified as part of a group.

This classification system is often referred to as IN-group and OUT-group, and suggests that participation in the IN-group leads to a sense of belonging. Classification in the OUT-group can lead to a sense of isolation and distance. A good way to think of this IN/OUT group aspect is to remember back to when you were in high school.  More than likely you had cliques that were specifically sorted toward a certain type of person. In my school, we had the Jocks, the Nerds, and the Stoners. Yes, awful names, but that is what we called them back in the 1970s. I was not part of any of these groups, so I became part of the out group. I experienced social isolation and a sense of not belonging in my high school because I didn't fit into these categorizations of persons. Thus, social identity theory suggests that there are comparable differences between groups, and people identify with one or more groups based on their acceptance and understanding of IN/OUT group organization.

Turner and Tajfel (1979) identified three mental processes that support this idea of group classification. They state that these mental processes occur in order, beginning with social categorization, social identification, and social comparison. IN-group and OUT-group categorizations have be used in so many group communication studies, and SIT is one of the most popular theories used to study group dynamics and organizational behavior research. Moreover, SIT can be applied to almost any situation whereby you have competing groups (e.g., democrats and republicans, Christians and atheists, heterosexuals and homosexuals, etc.) that are sorted based on differences (views, opinions, or belief systems). Basically, any group that is different from another could lead to categorization and identification issues as individuals decide on differences between members.

Turner and Tajfel's SIT Processes

These three process are critical to understanding how we form a social identity. The first process is categorization. We categorize things so that we can better understand them and determine their "fit." Classification is another term and it is something we do in many fields of study. We tend to sort objects, people, theories, etc. in ways that make sense to us.

The second process is social identification. In social identification, we tend to adopt the identity of the group where we feel we belong best. So for example, if we choose to attend a small denominational church, more than likely we will state that our preference for attending it is because we feel welcomed by the group members. We may say, "I don't think I would like a larger church because I would feel lost among all those people." And, for many people, this is actually true. Many people choose small churches because they feel safe, secure, and part of the group of believers who make up the church body. The key to social identification is that our emotions get tied up with our group preferences. As we come to identify with a particular group, we emotionally bond with it. This is why it is difficult to come to terms with the death of a group (say a church that splits). Our social identity becomes enmeshed with the organization (or group) we have joined.

The last process is social comparison. Once we have placed ourselves with a group and then bonded with it, we begin to compare our group to other groups. This process of social comparison is often highlighted in studies that seek to understand prejudice or racial bias. How do we see ourselves or our group when compared to other groups? In social comparison, our self-esteem is often buoyed when we compare ourselves favorably to other similar groups.

Social identity is necessary in order for us to belong or to feel as though we are part of a larger community. From a biblical standpoint, it is vitally important to remember that as Christians, we are called to community living, and not to individualism or isolationism. We are not created in isolation, but instead, God created us as part of His own family. Thus, we form social groupings in similar ways. We create families, and we maintain extended families. We have a fellowship communities at our churches. Furthermore, within our church, we categorize (segment) ourselves into smaller groups for the purpose of function or based on age differences. These social groups serve to reinforce our social identity. We feel a sense of belonging because we "belong" to a specific group.

In true Biblical sense, and within the Church itself, we are all members of the IN-group. There are no OUT-group members. This is a whole line of research that could prove foundational to churches that believe that we must do something "extra" to great special groups for people who say they don't fit into the larger group of Christ followers. This is simply a misunderstanding of the social identity theory at work in corporate organizational identification. And, more so, it is not in line with what the Bible says. If you have identified with Christ (been born-again), then you are now part of the IN-group. If you feel you are part of the OUT-group still, then you need to be discipled in Biblical study to help you understand your new identity is in Christ and no longer tied to the world. In short, as Christians we are all members of one group -- God's family. We are made members because of our identification with Christ Jesus. Therefore, we are adopted into God's family, and as such, we now possess IN Group membership.

The problem, and this is an aside, is that many churches do not teach adoption correctly. They do not teach identity formation as it is taught in the Bible. Instead, they teach fragmentation and isolation. They do not mean to do this, but this is what happens when they go from enfolding new members to isolating them by separating them out. Christians should not legitimize out groups, rather they need to address the issues of in group enfolding in order to make it possible for new members to feel welcome. It is pretty simple social psychology, but the way that some churches are pursuing social identification, they are distancing the membership instead of building it up. There is ONE church, ONE Group, and ONE membership. Fragmentation must cease (Psalm 133:1). Okay, off my rant...

Finding Significance 

So with all this in mind, how do we understand our identity and then discover our purpose? As Christian's our identity is formed in Christ, so who we are is really a matter of believing what God says about us. Our identity is created in Christ Jesus the moment we are born again. We must believe the Word of God, and trust that how God sees us, is really how He sees us. This means that our worldly assumptions, beliefs, and values -- our shaped understandings gleaned through experience as we live and move through our worldly existence -- must be reassigned to align with the Word of God. Often, we struggle with an identity crisis when we come to faith in Jesus. We refuse to give up what we believe about ourselves in order to accept what God says is true about us. Furthermore, we often continue to define our identity through our actions, our need to achieve, or our need for power or position. 

Patrick Morley (2014) says it this way: "We derive meaning and identity from understanding who we are in Christ. It’s a position we occupy. It’s a relationship with God, not a thing to be found through fame, fortune, and power" (para. 2).  In our search for significance, as Morley terms it, we often seek to find our purpose in things outside of God. He writes, "God has a purpose for our lives—a mission, a destiny—which is why we exist. It is the other half of our search for significance" (para. 3). It is vitally important to understand these two things because without them we can have a skewed perspective on life. In many ways, we can become confused and disoriented if we feel that our identity and our purpose seem to be running counter to what God is calling us to do in this life.

Purpose, therefore, is critical for valuation and to help us understand that God does indeed have a specific and uniquely designed plan for our life. Matthew Palmer (2012) addresses this issue when he asks, "What is our true identity? How do we find our true purpose? Does a particular job, image, ethnicity, sexual orientation, temperament, or social status determine identity?" Palmer is correct when he suggests that these questions seek the heart of the matter. 

In truth, how we see ourselves (our identity) is directly tied to how we will feel about our purpose in life. As Christians, if we do not see ourselves correctly, then our purpose will be either non-existent or will be directed toward other things besides what God intends for us to do. Palmer says, "If we define identity as a simple list of personal characteristics, we ignore the issue of why we are here on this earth. There is no infinite purpose attached to a hollow and malleable definition of identity" (para. 2). More so, he asserts, "When we focus only on how we appear in this life, we can become enslaved to the superficial and limited pursuits adorned by media, culture and society which have no real lasting or satisfying meaning. Our invented images are poor substitutes for addressing our true needs" (para. 3).

What does this mean, then? How do we navigate through an identity crisis and come out with our mental state intact and our purpose clearly defined?

First, we must remember that our identity has been recreated the moment we placed our faith and trust in Jesus as Savior. Yes, when we became identified with Him through His death, burial, and resurrection, we took on the "identification of Christ" (Gal. 2:20). Our former identity was dead and buried. Our new identity was risen with Christ. The Apostle Paul speaks about this when he talks about the old and new man, and how we are no longer living as "old men" (in the old way, under the old covenant or law). Our identity has been reshaped, and now aligns with God's original design because we are made new in Christ Jesus (Romans 6).

The remnants of the old man, the old self are still with us (unfortunately), and this is where we struggle most when we come to Christ. Even though we are spiritually made new, our physical self and all that is within us, is not immediately changed. In fact, the Bible clearly tells us that until we are resurrected (or we die in the Lord), our physical bodies will bear the marks of our life of sin. We are physically dead, but spiritually alive. It is a conundrum of sorts to wrap our heads around this truth, and our identity sometimes gets out of whack as a result. In many ways, even though we have been born-again, given new life in Christ Jesus, we can still live the old way where we think those old thoughts and repeat old patterns of behavior. The Holy Spirit is at work in us to help us grow, to put on the new self daily, but we still may struggle with doubts, insecurities, and at times, self-esteem issues until we are fully aware of just how our new life in Christ has the power to change us in infinitely better ways. Yes, we often choose to live a defeated life even after Christ, our Victor, has rescued us from the very pit of Hell. 

I like the way Marc Schelske (2013) says it as I think it addresses the problem many new and old Christians have with living this dual existence (born-again, but living in doubt). He writes, "Instead of pinning on a broken identity you’ve pieced together from scraps, you can discover an identity that will fit you perfectly because it comes from the Master Artist who made you. This sense of purpose will be life giving. It will bring you deep satisfaction even when the circumstances of your life are painful or difficult" (para. 2).

Interestingly, Schelske writes about identity and purpose in the same way I did many years ago. I always find this to be so wonderful (as an aside), how God will speak the same message through different individuals in order to bear witness to His word and to His truth. Many years ago, I hit upon this idea that there are two aspects to God's will for our lives. The one aspect is His universal will and the other is His unique calling (or will) for our individual lives. God's Kingdom will is revealed in Scripture and is summed up in the great commission to go and to make disciples of all the peoples (Matt. 28). God desires that no one be lost, so as His children, we are "called" (commanded) to go and to bear witness to Jesus, the Christ. In sharing the gospel readily, we are fulfilling God's Kingdom purpose or plan. We are functioning within His will for all His children -- to go and to be busy with His work of sharing the plan of salvation as He leads us and guides us along our unique pathway in life.

So while we are all called to "evangelize" or share the "good news" of Jesus Christ with others, we also are given very specific callings to equip us to fulfill unique roles within the Body of Christ. In these callings, the Holy Spirit gives to us gifts that help us to do the work God has designed for us to do. Some are called as Pastors, while others as teachers. Some are called to be SAHM, while others work outside the home. Some are administrators, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and others do what may appear to be inconsequential work, but work, nonetheless, that has power and can influence the lives of many people. 

What is important to note is that while we are all called to fulfill God's Kingdom purpose, we also receive a personal call that will give purpose and meaning to our lives. It is this personal call that can help us find significance in our daily life. In fact, understanding our call can help us transform our existence from merely getting by each day and into powerful testimony that bears witness to God's goodness, and can create opportunities for God to do marvelous and masterful work in and through us. Mature Christians understand that their identity and purpose are two different things. Identity is found in Christ alone, but purpose is informed through our personal relationship with Christ. We are empowered to do His work the more we come to recognize and understand who we are in Christ Jesus, and then grasp the significance of why we exist. Schelske states, "As you take this pursuit seriously, what you find will help peel away the layers of misunderstanding and false identity that you’ve collected over the course of your life" (para. 9).

Yes, false identity is the belief that says "I am worthless. I am no good" or asserts that the only way we will feel good about ourselves is if we play by the world's system and rules. Success. Power. Achievement. Money. Status. Things, etc. We can become enslaved to these beliefs and assumptions and begin to serve them rather than serving God.

Schelske says it this way:
"You believe that if you don’t perform well enough, you won’t be accepted, or loved or included. Knowing your Identity in Christ means you can set aside any image of yourself that isn’t from the One who made you. Instead of being defined by what others say, or what you imagine they might say, you can be free all of that."
For many of us, myself included, it can be a trap when we begin to believe that our identity is shaped by our abilities or our achievement. We can become enslaved to thoughts, patterns of behavior, etc., that lead us away from God and His purpose for our life. It is easy to buy into the false assumptions and beliefs that say that we are only as good as the work we produce. Or when we find ourselves comparing our achievements, our performance to that of others, we quickly find ourselves being sorted and classified as part of the wrong group (IN versus OUT). Instead, we must remember that we always belong to the IN Group -- to God's Group -- and as such, we no longer have to perform, manage, or even attempt to be found "acceptable" because God has already accepted us, adopted us, based on the finished work of His Son on the cross of Calvary.
Who Am I? Why do I exist?

As I close this blog post for today, I ponder on these thoughts.

Who am I and why do I exist?
What does the Bible say about my identity and purpose?

If I clearly understand who I am (identity) and why I exist (my purpose), and I have a firm understanding of what the Bible says about my identity and purpose, then I must reconcile any differences by acknowledging a faulty assumption or faulty belief system. In short, if I can answer the questions above truthfully, then I should be able to refute any faulty lines of thinking. Yes, I should be able to address the falsehood and lies that I have believed to be true.

I know who I am. I know why I exist. Therefore, I know my identity and my purpose.

I have been crucified with Christ [that is, in Him I have shared His crucifixion]; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith [by adhering to, relying on, and completely trusting] in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Gal. 2:20 AMP).

Some days, I guess, you just need to sit down and revisit the truth of the Word of God. Some days, you just need to be reminded of how much He loves you, and how much He really does care for you.


Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social identity theory. Retrieved from

Morley, P. (2014). Understand the difference between identity and purpose. Retrieved from

Palmer, M. (2012). Defining identity and purpose. Retrieved from

Schelske, M. A. (2013). Looking for purpose? Start with your identity in Christ. Retrieved from

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations?, 33, (47).

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